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U.S. judge refuses to toss out Mueller probe case against Russian firm owned by ‘Putin’s chef’

Yevgeniy Prigozhin
Yevgeniy Prigozhin (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

A federal judge refused Thursday to dismiss the indictment of a Russian firm accused by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III of funding part of a Russian effort to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

Concord Management and Consulting — owned by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian businessman known as “Putin’s chef” because of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — had asked that the case be dismissed, saying prosecutors “made up a crime” to criminalize election trolling and political speech.

In a 31-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected that argument, saying prosecutors properly charged Concord with conspiring to obstruct the lawful functions of the U.S. government by evading foreign election and lobbying disclosure requirements and concealing its interference in the American political process. The company is accused of using a far-reaching fraudulent social media campaign to influence the election.

“Concord’s concerns amount to a single attack: that the government has charged Concord based on conduct that is not illegal,” Friedrich wrote. “But Concord cannot escape the fact that the course of deceptive conduct alleged is illegal.”

Friedrich added: “The key question . . . is not whether the defendants’ agreed-upon conduct violated [disclosure laws] — or any other statute — but whether it was deceptive and intended to frustrate the lawful government functions” of the Justice and State departments and Federal Election Commission, which regulate foreign involvement. “At this stage, that is more than enough,” she said.

Russian troll farm, 13 suspects indicted in 2016 election interference

The win for the special counsel came as President Trump and his legal team continue to review a list of written questions posed by Mueller’s team, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said Thursday.

There are at least two dozen questions, all of which relate to activities and episodes from before Trump’s election, according to Giuliani and others briefed on the questions.

“There are some that create more issues for us legally than others,” Giuliani said. He said some were “unnecessary,” some were “possible traps,” and “we might consider some as irrelevant.”

Trump spent more than four hours meeting with his attorneys Monday and 90 minutes Wednesday night, according to people familiar with the sessions.

Giuliani said the special counsel has not imposed a firm deadline, but he added that Trump’s answers “could be tomorrow.”

Separately, the decision by the federal judge Thursday contained a caution to prosecutors.

Concord’s attorneys, led by Eric A. Dubelier, had argued that Mueller’s office “made up a crime to fit the facts they have,” seeking to invent a way to police “what people say on the Internet.” The government could not show Concord knew or willfully avoided disclosure requirements, Dubelier added, calling them vague.

Friedrich said that while there was “plenty” of evidence of deceit — including “impersonating U.S. people and entities online, using stolen identities to hide the source of online payments, using computer infrastructure to evade detection, and destroying evidence” — the difficulty for the government would be connecting that deceit to existing federal disclosure laws.

“The government may ultimately have to prove that the defendants agreed to a course of conduct that, if carried out, would require disclosure” to the Federal Election Commission or the Justice Department, Friedrich said.

Concord has pleaded not guilty to a February indictment charging it, 13 Russian individuals and two other companies with conspiracy in an effort to trick Americans online into following and promoting Russian-fed propaganda that pushed 2016 voters toward then-Republican candidate Donald Trump and away from Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

The operation was allegedly run by the Internet Research Agency of St. Petersburg, and other co-defendants include Prigozhin and his related Concord Catering business.

Concord is the only defendant to appear in U.S. court.

Separately, the Justice Department announced in October it had charged Concord’s accountant and Prigozhin’s bookkeeper, Elena Khusyaynova, 44, alleging the conspiracy was ongoing and seeking to interfere with the 2018 U.S. midterm elections by sowing “discord in the U.S. political system” by pushing misinformation online about divisive political issues, including race relations, immigration and gun control.

Justice Dept. charges Russian woman with interference in midterm elections

Mueller’s office charged a dozen Russian military intelligence officers in July with hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers, stealing data and publishing files to disrupt the 2016 election.

Prigozhin and Concord were hit with U.S. sanctions over Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military actions in Ukraine in 2016, and they were hit again in March based on “malicious cyber-enabled activities.”